October 27, 2015
The night we arrived in Namche Bazaar- an ancient Nepalese center of trade with Tibet now a hub of the trekking industry- a young Buddhist monk appeared at our lodge, radiating a peace, joy, and kindness that cannot be explained by simple adherence to a religious creed. His name is Pemba Tenzing, a lama of Lawudo Monastery, and he was to be our guide the following morning over a high, obscure route to the monastery; he told us we would be the first westerners ever to take this path. Pemba Tenzing stayed in the lodge with us that night. He spoke uncommonly good English, and over dinner he showed us photographs he’d taken of the route, some of which I found rather gruesome. It wasn’t scary, he assured me. “Some parts are difficult, but we will go together as a group. Make it a walking meditation: focus on each step.”
The following morning, with the bovine sluggishness typical of humans filled with breakfast, the members of our group who had elected to go to Lawudo left Namche Bazaar via the steep, switchbacking steps leading out above town. Our swashbuckling guide, Ang Dendi Sherpa, and a couple of our Sherpa porters- by now beloved members of our sort of transitory nomadic family- came along. Just outside the little village of Khunde, we were surprised by clear, gleaming views of high peaks, big kahunas like Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablum. There was a lot of lollygagging and photography. Pemba Tenzing stood patiently waiting, holding the plastic bag containing the only provisions he had packed: several strings of prayer flags he had blessed with mantra chanting and rice sprinkling at breakfast. When I asked him how he could walk in the mountains without water, Pemba replied,chuckling, “we are the camels of the Himalaya.” Passing through Khunde- low stone walls plastered with drying patties of yak dung, a plentiful fire fuel; old men fingering worn wooden prayer beads in small dirt courtyards; yaks busy hauling cargo and producing more fuel – we were invited into a yard for tea. Dendi emerged from the house with a plate of Champa porridge, a barley cake, which he explained was a blessing for us from the village monastery. Enamoured of the taste and ever eager for any blessings available to me, I ate two pieces.
As we headed out of town, I inquired about the route, and Pemba Tenzing casually replied that “we must go over that small hill,” pointing up to a high pass atop a steep mountainside that topped out around 14,300 ft. above sea level, higher than almost any place in the contiguous USA. We followed the “trail” straight up the ridge to the pass, which was festooned as usual with colorful prayer flags flapping furiously in the high altitude winds. The Sherpas, with their usual assortment of merry hoots and shouts, strung our flags- blessed by Pemba Tenzing- between the boulders, adding to the interconnected web of blessings. How could prayers fail to reach the gods with such fierce winds in their wings, at such fierce heights?
The vistas of the high peaks were staggering, though the sheer precipice on the other side of the pass made staggering seem inadvisable. Elated to be soaring amidst such hard-earned beauty, a few members of our crew, some of them mountaineers and climbers comfortable with tenuous holds up high, hopped up onto precarious rock perches to take it all in, thus scaring the living sherp out of our good, protective Sherpas: “Oh, take care, take care!” Dendi headed back down the hill to take care of some business back in Namche, and we turned to Pemba Tenzing, ready to embark on the next leg of the journey. Wearing a serene but serious expression, the monk told us, “now is the time when we must go slowly and focus on every step,” and vanished over the pass. Gazing around the bend, I saw a thin, jagged dirt line cut into the side of the mountain with sheer drops of 1 or 2,000 feet- what walker carries a ruler long enough to tell?- down to the valley floor and roaring river.
At this point, friends, I will offer a reveal that will brutally stomp my petty machismo, of which my girlfriend tells me I’ve got quite a lot: Perhaps the greatest thrill of my lifelong passion for bumbling around high mountains and canyons derives from the game of trying to grin down my queasy acrophobia, my terrible fear of the abyss. Tracking my widened eyeballs over this little ledge trail- just wider than my boot-that would suffer no bumbling, I struggled to recall that thrill. “This is the kind of shit,” I thought to myself, “that really gives me the creeping willies,” and I cursed myself for having consented to be led to the literal edge of my doom by a puckish mountain goat reincarnated as a Buddhist monk. For a moment I wasn’t sure I could command my legs to walk that way for several hours, and I said so out loud to Jerry. The fearless leader was characteristically reassuring: the trail probably wouldn’t be so bad for very long; go slowly; take your time.” I went slowly.
As soon as I stepped down onto the ledge, that intense thrill of commanding every muscle and nerve into concerted focus in the Now overwhelmed the petty phobia. That’s survival zen, buddies, and it’s a rush. Kami Dendi, our elder Sherpa porter and one of the strongest people I have ever seen, must have noticed my trepidation, and gently took hold of my jacket sleeve as we walked. While I had little doubt that this mighty man- whom I have watched bear on his back loads the size of compact cars over treacherous Himalayan trails- could pluck me from the abyss with those three fingers, I was now intent on relying on my own unrestricted movements. Jerry spoke to Kami in Nepali, and he let me go, but remained close.
Before I give in to silly, superfluous melodrama, let me say that most of the trail wasn’t so terribly scary, but there was enough razzle-dazzle to make it a real adventure. To walk with grace and heightened awareness in such a wild, high, ferociously beautiful place seen by so few was a true gift. But as gifts go, it was a real ass kicker. If you’ve never walked in steep places above 13-14,000 feet, you may not understand the laborious, clownish symptoms that greatly reduced oxygen levels can inflict on an otherwise sound human. The brain goes slightly loopy and cattywampus, iron thighs and buns of steel are transformed into inert sacks of meal, and breathing becomes difficult enough to induce a mild panic, especially in a kid who suffered crippling asthma until mid adolescence.
And then there is Pemba Tenzing. Always at the head of the group, occasionally allowing us to catch up, I never saw or heard him emit a huff or puff. I can’t remember ever having seen an animal more agile and graceful in his native environment. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that at times I saw Pemba Tenzing levitating 2 inches above the stony ground. And I don’t know better.
The whole trip was ineffably gorgeous, stunning, exciting. At our highest point, up the Kyajo Ri valley, we reached around 14,900 ft., higher than any place in America outside Alaska. When we came limping and stumbling into Lawudo Monastery- the trip had taken us nearly twice the estimated 5 hours- Pemba Tenzing sat us down on cushioned benches and served us delicious Dhal Bhat, the fuel on which Nepalis run (“Dhal Bhat power 24 hour,” our Sherpas like to remind us). A brief tour of the meditation chapel and library were followed by the part I had been most anticipating: Pemba Tenzing led us in a short breathing meditation in the ancient and sacred meditation cave. Seated on cushions in the beautiful, colorfully ornamented cave, we followed Pemba’s instructions: focus gaze on tip of nose, count breaths to hold your attention there, breathe in good and exhale bad.
“This cave has great power,” Pemba told us, “because many high lamas meditate here for many hundreds of years.” I absorbed a little, awoke a little. “Now wherever you go, always have good heart. All Dharma (religion; truth) is same- Buddha, Jesus, all same. When you have good heart, all comes from there.”
On the night walk by headlamp back to Namche I had time and rhythm for reflection. I signed on for this trip during a strange, tough, transitional year, because I believed the experiences I’d bumble into would expand, illuminate, stretch and light up my heart a little. Adventure stretches the horizons and boundaries of the possible and tolerable worlds. A stretched heart becomes a big heart, and there’s more of a big heart to fill with good. I tend to agree with my new friend and teacher, the levitating lama: all comes from there.